I am always thinking. I think about one thing while I am doing something else. I think about this stuff while I am doing that stuff. I think about what I am doing, and then think about what I am going to do next. I think about questions to ask you, and then while listening to your answer I think about what I am going to say when it’s my turn to talk again. When I go to bed the last thing I do is think about my day, and when I wake up the first thing I think about is all the things I have to do. All this thinking is exhausting!
When I was turning 29 I decided that I wanted to do a 10-day silent meditation retreat to quiet my mind. At that point, my meditation practice was limited to what happened in yoga class. I did not have my own routine and had never been taught a meditation method - so I would just sit there and wonder what I was going to eat for dinner or if I should get those skinny jeans with the zipper at the ankles. Needless to say I wasn’t exactly prepared for the journey ahead.
The Physical And Mental Challenge
The retreat was obviously very physically demanding because sitting in a meditative pose for 12 hours a day got incredibly uncomfortable. But it was the mental challenge that was by far the most difficult. My mind would not stop thinking about the pain I was in. How my legs were falling asleep, or how my back was sore. I would then think about how I shouldn't be thinking about my body, but that only made me think of it more. I had no control over where my mind was going, and I felt like I needed a spiritual lasso to reel it back in.
We were given a mantra that we were supposed to say while meditating to provoke what is called “the doubt sensation.” The idea was that by focusing on the mantra rather than my thoughts, it would connect me to the mysteries of the universe that cannot be explained through language. What I came to understand is that our “true self” exists in a place beyond words. It is our ego that is doing all that talking, whereas our essence communicates in the language of the eternal. I realized that we already have all the knowledge of the cosmos inside of us; we just have to quiet the chatter of our ego long enough to listen. Yet even though my head could rationally understand this concept, I couldn’t make my mind shut up.
The Voices In My Head
During my meditations I became painfully aware of the voices in my head. There was the voice that was saying the mantra. But there was also the voice that was thinking random thoughts like “I wonder if anyone has emailed me since I have been gone?” Then there was the voice that would judge that wandering thought and say “Toni, that is a really stupid thought. You shouldn't be thinking that. You should be thinking about not thinking.” And then there would be the thinking about whoever was listening to all that. It was through this hyper-awareness of the nature of my thinking that I realized that 98% of my thoughts don’t serve me at all.
Once I accepted this concept, I directed my attention to the mantra instead of my wandering thoughts. The interesting consequence of this intention was that the more I focused on the mantra, the greater quality my thoughts came to have. Where before my thoughts would be self-obsessed and self-loathing, I would instead think about nature, and why birds migrate. It was as if my thoughts realized that the base anxieties of my ego were no longer seductive because they were in competition with the purity of the mantra. My thoughts were then forced to improve their value in order to rouse my attention. It was through that intense concentration on the mantra that I found freedom from the voices in my head. And it was in those instants that time and space became meaningless and all that was left was the truth.
A Life Long Journey
I can’t say that I mastered the art of meditating, but I have fully committed to it. That experience at the retreat rewired my brain, and the mantra helps me find moments of being fully present. Not a day has passed where I don’t meditate every morning and every night as I still search to talk to myself less, and listen more. I am not sure I will ever fully quiet my mind in this lifetime, but at least I can slow it down.
Yet, after all this time I have spent searching for the answers, my 3-year old daughter helped me understand a very profound perspective in one single conversation. She was jumping on the couch and making a fort. She then saw my meditation pillow and brought it over to add to the pile.
Toni: Do you know what that is, Munch?
Munch: It is Mamma’s pillow.
Toni: Do you know what Mamma uses that pillow for?
Munch: Yeah. It is your meditating pillow.
Toni: Do you know what meditating is, Munch?
Munch: Meditating is sleeping.
Toni: Well, it is not exactly sleeping. It is a state between sleeping and being awake. It is where I sit there and try not to think.
Munch: Oh. Well, I don’t need to do that.
This exchange made me wonder whether maybe the secret to enlightenment is keeping in touch with your child mind throughout your adult years? Where rather than thinking about life all day, you are observing it, and thus, actually living it.